Even though Big Data is still behind its more sinister buzzword sibling Big Brother in the public consciousness, there’s no denying the impact this nebulous term has had on our lives over the recent decades. As our ability to analyse and therefore draw real value from the huge data sets the internet is capable of capturing increases, the view of data as a commodity similar to something like oil is starting to sound less crazy. Knowing what kind of economic explosion erupted after society figured out how to use oil to its advantage, researchers are trying to anticipate and direct the aftermath of the boom data will elicit once our analytic tools become sophisticated enough.
The Oxford Internet Institute has recently published a report examining the ways in which the current environment of abundant, cheap data could be used to finance various public good initiatives, such as infrastructure in developing countries and the fight against global warming. It is estimated that the data economy constitutes around 7% of developed countries’ GDP, which amounts to approximately ten times the United Nations development spending goal and suggests the possible positive impact this emerging sector could have on the world. At a time when governmental aid budgets and philanthropic coffers are getting less and less able to meet the challenges of a rapidly changing world, such a monetary influx is direly needed.
The report argues that companies taking advantage of the data boom should be responsible for bringing the internet to more impoverished parts of the world, funding infrastructure and education projects and in effect creating an internet subsidy for less privileged members of society. Facebook has already made progress in this area with its internet.org project, but its efforts have attracted criticism as some see it violating one of the founding principles of the internet – net neutrality.
As we increasingly entrust corporate entities with more of our sensitive information, their data banks become more attractive to being hacked, leading to the loss of privacy and identity theft. The report argues that a fund should be financed by the big companies that would try to pre-empt the damage of these events.
Another key addressed issue is the fact that a lot of these companies are deriving value from free data repositories like Wikipedia, but are contributing little to their creation or maintenance. According to the report, as much as $152.5bn of the top 20 Internet company revenue could be due to the exploitation of shared and open data, a figure which suggests the effect even modest taxation could have (Wikipedia cost over $52m last year).
However, no matter how much potential funds could be unlocked for global development through tapping into untaxed online data, if all that would lead to would be the internet giants hiking up prices for their services, the burden of financing these initiatives would fall onto the wrong shoulders. That’s why the writers take up a significant amount of time addressing the problem of targeting the pockets of the companies themselves while leaving the consumers out of it.
Data is the first commodity whose transport is hardly constricted by national borders. The ease at which tech giants are able to access and draw value from this increasing stream of data should be reflected in their care for every source that contributes to it. Even though this report in ways binds companies to its suggested path, it does represent a step in the right direction.
(featured image courtesy of Camelia Boban, Wikimedia Commons)